Buddhism’s roots go back 2,600 years, to India, when a young prince left his comfortable trappings and spent years searching and meditating until he became enlightened about what causes human suffering and what alleviates it. He then sought to pass along his spiritual discoveries to whoever would listen, and the Buddhist philosophy — often considered a religion — proliferated from India to Japan and China and much of Southeast Asia before spreading to the rest of the world.
Hundreds of millions of people now practice Buddhism, with its focus on meditation and mindfulness, kindness and service, compassion and inner peace. Thousands upon thousands of books that explain Buddhism’s tenets, history, practices, and challenges have been written over the centuries, and its benefits are becoming increasingly quantifiable, as demonstrated in books such as Andrew Newberg, M.D., and Mark Robert Waldman’s How Enlightenment Changes Your Brain: The New Science of Transformation and Thupten Jinpa, PhD’s, A Fearless Heart: How the Courage to Be Compassionate Can Transform Our Lives.
Since there are so many strands and variations globally, the Buddha’s birthday is celebrated on different dates in different traditions. The Theravada Buddhist tradition, which is the oldest and one of the most dominant, will honor Buddha’s birthday (as well as his enlightenment and death) with its Vesak holy day on May 20 this year, timed to the month’s first full moon. As it happens, author and Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, one of the West’s most well-known and revered practitioners, will speak at her annual retreat at New York’s Omega Institute the weekend of May 20-22.
So in honor of the Buddha’s birthday, we’ve compiled a list of eight of the best books on Buddhism for beginners looking for an introduction to the Buddhist approach to living in a challenging world.
The Four Noble Truths by Ven. Ajahn Sumedho
Despite its grand ambitions and seemingly mysterious concepts, Buddhist philosophy is actually quite logical, practical, and realistic. Many traditions use the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths as the basic building blocks of all subsequent teaching and practice, so an understanding of them is essential to making use of Buddhism. In their simplest form, they are: 1) There is suffering; 2) Suffering comes from desire; 3) One can be free from suffering; 4) To end suffering, one follows the Eightfold Path. There are whole libraries full of books that teach practitioners how to apply these principles to day-to-day practicalities to achieve a more positive and serene state, and there are many printed versions of the Four Noble Truths. This thin volume, which teaches how “the unhappiness of humanity can be overcome through spiritual means,” is compiled from talks given by an American-born monk ordained in Thailand in the Theravada tradition.
What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula
Widely considered one of the most straightforward and effective introductions to Buddhism, Rahula’s 1959 book makes extensive use of the Buddha’s original texts to lay out the foundations of the religion and its practices. A Sri Lankan monk and scholar, Rahula was instrumental in bringing Buddhism to the West — he helped to form the first Theravada temple in the United States and became a professor at Northwestern University. The book is still often used in introductory religion courses at colleges around the country.
The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching: Transforming Suffering Into Peace, Joy, and Liberation by Thich Nhat Hanh
A Vietnamese Buddhist monk and prolific author, Nhat Hanh, now nearing his ninetieth birthday, has written more than one hundred books in his lifetime, during which he has taught at many institutions around the world and become one of the world’s most renowned peace activists. His work is voluminous and touches on every aspect and application of Buddhism, but this 1999 book distills its basic teachings down to very accessible form for those new to it.
Be a Lamp Upon Yourself
Many Buddhist temples make available free or donation-based literature written by monks and longtime practitioners, and this 1999 work from Kong Meng San Phor Kark See Monastery in Singapore is a great example. In brief, straightforward passages, the writers methodically explain all of the basic precepts of Buddhist philosophy while addressing directly some of the potential criticisms and challenges to Buddhist thought, such as: With its focus on suffering, is Buddhism pessimistic? and, How does science fit with Buddhist theory? The work can be found free online.
Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chögyam Trungpa
Trungpa, who fled Tibet along with the Dalai Lama in 1959, was one the most influential scholars and meditation masters in the West, closely associated with the Shambhala tradition that he expanded in the States throughout the 1970s and ’80s. He was an alcoholic and a confounding loose cannon, but this 1973 book compiled from his lectures is a modern classic that warns against one of the great dangers that Buddhism and meditation face in American culture, in particular: our capacity to turn even spirituality into a self-improvement kick that feeds the ego, thus blocking spiritual progress. In that sense, it addresses spirituality generally, and thus is applicable to any tradition or religion.
Comfortable With Uncertainty: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion by Pema Chödrön
Director of Gampo Abbey and a student of Chögyam Trungpa, Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön has recorded scores of her talks as audiobooks and written dozens of other books that strive to apply Buddhist principles to Western lifestyles and thinking. In books such as When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times and The Wisdom of No Escape and the Path of Loving-Kindness, her gift is to use Western language and everyday personal examples to articulate the emotional turmoil all humans feel and thus make a Buddhist approach to alleviating suffering reasonable and accessible. This compendium of brief lessons drawn from many of her other books is a great place to start in figuring out how to make Buddhist concepts, practices, and meditation work in our day-to-day lives.
How to Practice: The Way to a Meaningful Life by His Holiness the Dalai Lama
As a Nobel Prize winner and one of the world’s most high-profile Buddhist monks, the Tibetan fourteenth Dalai Lama, now eighty, has had one of the most public forums for expounding on Buddhist beliefs, even as he is more often contemplated in a political context. Though he has written other books, many of them bestsellers, this 2002 work spends a fair amount of time on his practical approach to understanding basic Buddhist concepts, how to make them work in our daily lives and why. It later delves into more advanced aspects of Buddhism, but the early focus serves as an enticing introduction from one of its warmest practitioners.
The Life of the Buddha: According to the Pali Canon by Bhikkhu Ñaṇamoli
A non-traditional biography, this 1972 book takes its material directly from the original ancient texts written by those closest to Siddhartha Gautama (later the Buddha) in India. With Ñaṇamoli’s additional commentary, it explores not only the Buddha’s life but also the cultural context for his enlightenment and teachings. It’s a little heavier going, but the book has the benefit of focusing on the original writings. Ñaṇamoli is a scholar and British monk of the Theravada tradition, which honors the Pali language used in the earliest Buddhist texts.